Why is Air Invisible, and Other Unanswerable Questions for Parents
It is so common that it makes you laugh to yourself when you witness it with another child, as I did the other night. I was in a restaurant with my son, when I heard coming from a neighboring table a litany of “why” questions. These are often those meandering and tangential queries about anything and everything from “why is the crayon broken?” to “why is air invisible?” questions that occupy so much of the dead air space between parent and child. On this particular night, the neighboring toddler inquisitor was asking things like, “why do we eat with plates?” and “why isn’t Lily here?” The boy’s mother either met each successive question with a feeble attempt at an answer or total exasperation. I laughed because it was funny, and it wasn’t happening to me…at least at that very moment.
However, I find myself answering, or at least attempting to answer, these “why questions” coming from my young child. At times it is cute and an endearing representation of the curious spirit, other times it feels like an inquisition. Now comes scientific research revealing that the reason behind so many “why questions” coming from children is that, beyond being inherently curious, they are also looking for some form of engagement. According to this research performed on 2 to 5-year olds enrolled in a study at the University of Michigan, from looking at how the children reacted to the answers they received to their questions, the researchers found that children seem to be more satisfied when they receive an explanatory answer than when they do not. Nothing truly revelatory there, as any parent would tell you, however in further examining these conversational exchanges, it was revealed that children are not simply trying to prolong conversation, but they are truly trying to get to the bottom of things.
But as any parent will tell you, the “bottom of things” is an indefinite destination, with these why conversations becoming cyclical, almost comedic, routines. Dr Alan Greene sees it somewhat differently and says that children ” don’t need to know why, all they need is animated attention” and the parent-child interchange. Therefore, your curious child should be satisfied by a fair and thorough explanation of why and how the sky is actually blue.
For me, I find the questions (for the most part) pretty charming and a window into my child’s developing awareness and consciousness. And at times, it even makes me take pause and consider things like, “why can’t we eat rocks?”
I encourage you to share some personal insight on the matter. What do you feel is the purpose of the non-stop “why and how questions”? Have you witnessed changes in your child’s behavior after a particularly detailed explanation of something? Is it all just digressive chatter? Feel free to share stories and anecdotes, or just ask why?